Letter 17 – The Five Skandas are All Empty

In Shanghi recently there were many gatherings where revelations and prophecies were proclaimed. Their messages about abandoning evil ways and practicing wholesome deeds, as well as their pronouncements on Birth and Death, Cause and Effect, while superficial and limited, are very useful for everyday morality and the minds of ordinary persons. However the points they made concerning the future and the Buddha Dharma are somewhat vague and not free of error. As disciples of the Buddhas, we should not oppose or reject those pronouncements, because doing so may hinder the good actions of others. At the same time, however, we should not repeat or extol them, lest we be guilty of chimerical statements and conjectures that bring harm and disorder to the Dharma and engender doubts among the people.

This old monk, knowing himself to be beset with many karmic obstructions, would not dare abandon reason for emotion and thus cause others to error. He begs the reader to take both emotion and reason into account when following his advice, in order to avoid harmful actions.

Think this over: he word “samadhi” is translated as correct concentration. It is the state of dissipation of delusion and emergence of the Truth—tranquil and bright. How can there be any realm or state within it? Therefore, the Surangama Sutra states:

Perfect attainment of the fruit of Enlightenment is non-attainment of anything.

The Zen practitioner relies only on his own strength (self-power) without seeking the Buddhas’ assistance. Therefore, when he exerts himself to the limit in cultivation, the true and the false assail each other, giving rise to many states and realms that suddenly appear and disappear.

It is though a heavy rain is abating. The dark clouds disperse, the overcast sky suddenly clears; things change back and forth without warning. These states and realms are difficult for those who do not possess transcendental vision to distinguish. If the cultivator mistakenly considers these manifestations to be true, he is immediately possessed by “demons,” and becomes insane.

On the other hand, when the Pure Land practitioner earnestly recites Buddha Amitabha’s name and His ten thousand virtues, it is like the sun shining in the middle of empty space or a walk along a broad, straight path. Not only are demons and evil spirits nowhere in sight, but deluded thoughts disappear as well.

Ultimately, when the practitioner recites to the point of pure, unmixed power, the totality of Mind is Buddha, the totality of Buddha is Mind, Mind and Buddha are as one. I am afraid that this principle and practice are not understood by everyone. It has always been my desire to proclaim them and to disseminate the Original Vows of Amitabha Buddha to rescue all sentient beings. How would I dare conceal this truth, transmitting it privately to you alone? If there is any secret knowledge to be transmitted privately in a hidden place, it is in an externalist teaching, not a Buddhist teaching.

Having said so, however, this old monk, in truth, does have a wonderful secret teaching, which only he possesses. Since you have requested it today, I have no qualms about revealing it to all Buddhist followers. What is this wonderful teaching? It is utter sincerity and profound respect. This secret is known to everyone, yet obscure to all!

Wishing to eradicate deep-seated karma and repay the kindness of the Buddhas, I have endeavored, day in and day out, to probe the shining cultivation of the ancients. I have thus discovered that utter sincerity and profound respect constitute a wonderful “secret” method that lifts human beings to the realms of the saints, enabling them to escape Birth and Death. Time and again I have brought these points to the attention of those who have the right conditions. You should know that sincerity and respect are not reserved exclusively to students of the Dharma, but form the basis of all activities that you want to complete to perfection.

You have planted wholesome roots in previous lifetimes and belong to a family imbued with Buddhism for many generations. In your youth, you were well brought up at home and later on, for some twenty to thirty years, you attended school and experienced the ways of the world fully. Why have you decided to abandon the lofty and sublime to stoop to the common and ordinary, placing such value on my writings and distributing them to others?

You should know that the most important criteria in dissemination of the Dharma for the benefit of sentient beings are “timing” and “capacities.”

Those who are well-versed in Buddhism have failed to point out the most relevant cure for today’s illnesses. Instead, all they do is discourse on lofty, sublime methods which, generally speaking are not the right medicine.

Therefore, I have no hesitation about hanging out my shingle for those who wish to rescue sentient beings and benefit mankind, advertising this medicine to all who are ill. I do realize that the remedies prescribed by those Immortal physicians are miraculous, but I do not advise people to take them—as illnesses stem from past karma and cannot be cured by physicians, however divine.

Heavy karmic obstructions, excessive greed and anger, a weak and ailing body, a fearful, apprehensive mind—these symptoms will, in time, disappear naturally if you singlemindedly recite the Buddha’s name. The “Avalokitesvara [twenty-fifth] Chapter” of the Lotus Sutra” states:

If … living beings much given to carnal passion keep in mind and revere the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, they will be set free from their passion. If [those] much given to irascibility [hatred and anger] keep in mind and revere the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, they will be set free from their irascibility. If [those] much given to delusion keep in mind and revere the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, they will be set free from their delusion. (B. Kato, et al, The Threefold Lotus Sutra, p. 320.)

The same is true of reciting the Buddha’s name. However, you should concentrate your mind to the utmost and put a stop to “sundry [distracting] thoughts,” doubts and uncertainties. Whatever you seek will then materialize. As the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has great affinities with sentient beings in the Saha World, you should, in addition to your regular Pure Land sessions, recite Her name. Alternatively, you may also recite the Surangama Mantra or the Great Compassion Manta.

If you wish to be a Dharma master, lecturing on the sutras in public, you should first read the original texts, then study the commentaries and sub-commentaries. However, should you discover that your intellect is average and your understanding not necessarily above others, you should concentrate on Buddha Recitation rather than wasting time and energy pursuing these non-essential endeavors.

If, on the other hand, you would like to engage in Sutra Recital in accordance with your limited capacities for the benefits it confers, you should keep the three karmas of body, speech and mind utterly pure, earnest and sincere, bow to the Buddhas and sit erect concentrating your mind for a moment or two, before opening a sutra to read aloud or silently. At that time, you should sit up straight as though you were facing the Buddhas, listening to their perfect voices, without a single lazy, discriminating thought. The, without trying to find the meaning of the sutra, just recite it in one stretch from beginning to end.

By reciting the sutras in such a manner, if you are of superior spirituality, you can awaken to the Non-Dual Truth and reach the Dharma of True Mark. Even if you are dull and of low capacity, you will gain increased merit and wisdom, eradicating karmic obstructions in the process. Th Sixth Patriarch once said:

We can awaken our Mind and see our True Nature just by reciting the Diamond Sutra.

This quote refers to the practice of Sutra Recital as explained above. It is therefore called “samatha” (stopping or arresting mental processes). If you follow these steps, reciting any Mahayana sutra can lead to the opening of the Mind, the seeing of your True Nature. This does not apply to the Diamond Sutra alone.

You should not use the discriminating mind, trying to understand the meaning of this sentence, the idea behind that paragraph, as all this belongs to the realm of deluded thought, reasoning and comparing. Such a mind cannot be in silent accord with the Buddha Mind, lead to a thorough understanding of the essence of the sutra or provide the causes and conditions for eradicating transgressions and creating blessings.

Practicing Sutra Recital with a discriminating mind, if accompanied by reverential thoughts, may lead to the sowing of a few wholesome karmic seeds. If, on the other hand, it is accompanied by laziness and arrogant thoughts, it cannot fail to generate evil consequences from these very same seeds—the resulting suffering will be immense!

Once, while reciting a sutra, the Patriarch Chih [founder of the T’ien T’ai school] suddenly experienced a Great Awakening and silently entered samadhi. If he had had a discriminating mind at that time, how could he possibly have succeeded in such a manner? Another master was copying the Lotus Sutra, completely oblivious to the ten thousand conditions (i.e., everything). He was still at his desk writing long after the sun had sat when his disciple walked in and said: “It is so late already, how can you, Master, still be copying the sutra?” The monk was startled to discover that it was so dark he could not even see his hand!

Whether reciting the sutras, meditating, chanting mantras or reciting the Buddha’s name, as long as you do it with this level of concentration and persevere for a long time, one day you will understand all and everything and experience a Great Awakening (awaken to the Way).

Thus, during the Ming dynasty, there was a Zen monk by the name of Hsuech Ch’iao Hsin. He had entered the Order in midlife and was completely illiterate. Nevertheless, thanks to his strict observance of austerities, assiduous meditation, extreme forbearance and other difficult practices, before long he suddenly experienced a Great Awakening. Whatever he said after that was in accordance with the Perfect Teaching. From then on, he gradually came to know how to read and write. In a relatively short time, he was transformed into a scholar fully at ease in the exposition of the Dharma. During the Ch’ing period, his writings were incorporated into the Mahayana canon.

Such benefits all stem from a mind completely focused on meditation, with no discriminating thoughts. Those who practice Sutra Recital should take these examples as models. Thus, when engaging in Sutra Recital, you absolutely must avoid the development of a discriminating mind. In this way deluded thoughts will settle themselves at the bottom, while your transcendental Original Nature will gradually reveal itself.

However, if you wish to study the sutras to understand their profound meaning or write commentaries upon them, you should reserve a special period of time to concentrate exclusively on such activity. At that time, it may not be necessary to be as strict and respectful as during Sutra Recital, but you should not adopt an irreverent attitude—at most, you can be a little more relaxed.

If you have not succeeded in extinguishing evil karma and developing wisdom, you should consider Sutra Recital as your main objective and sutra study as secondary. Otherwise, you will waste months and years pursuing such studies. Even if you were to understand the sutras to the point of pushing away the clouds and revealing the shining moon, sliding open the shutters and admiring the green mountains, it would merely increase your stock of rationalizations and arguments at the “edge of the lips and the tip of the tongue.” What relationship does that bear to the issue of Birth and Death? When the last day of the twelfth month has come and death is waiting, you could not use the least bit of such knowledge!

If you can follow the Sutra Recital method described above, the various karmas of greed, anger and desire/grasping will gradually disappear and you will develop wisdom. Otherwise, not only will you fail to derive any true benefits, there is the possibility that the power of evil karma accumulated from time immemorial will lead you to develop wrong views and reject Cause and Effect. All the while, the afflictions of lust, killing, stealing and lying will come to the fore one after another like a raging fire. You may even sometimes mistake yourself for a Mahayana luminary, thinking that nothing should be an obstacle, using the Sixth Patriarch’s teaching “if the mind is pure, what need is there to keep the precepts,” to justify your actions, claiming that “to break the precepts without breaking the precepts is true keeping of the precepts.”

There are many such hazards along the path of cultivation, making the True Dharma very difficult to attain! For this reason, the various Patriarchs have generally advocated cultivation of the Pure Land method, relying on the compassionate power of Amitabha Buddha to extinguish evil karmic power, so that it will not flare up.

You should therefore tak Bubddha Recitation as your principal practice and Sutra Recital as an auxiliary method. You can recite the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Surangama Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Parinirvana Sutra, the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, etc. one after another or you can limit yourself to one sutra. In either case, you should follow the principles I explained earlier. If you are indifferent and lack restraint and respect, discriminating feelings and views will surely rob you of great benefits. Your evil karma will then know no bounds!

I used to think that you and your friend were thorough believers in the Pure Land method. However, when I saw the draft of your letter seeking advice from Hsu Chin, I learned of your intention to recite mantras and investigate the Precept-keeping (Discipline) method. You also said: “I have not seen anything mentioned in Pure Land as lofty and sublime as the blessings and virtues derived from reciting mantras; therefore, my mind is undecided and I do not know whether or not I should follow Pure Land.”

Look at yourself and see what your capacities are. Why do you wish to understand and penetrate all Dharma methods in such a manner? I only fear that such confusion and indecisiveness will, in time, unsettle and cloud your mind.

As for Hsu Chun, he has said that “according to the Tantric method, wherever the power of mantras goes, be it on a wisp of air or grain of dust, sentient beings there will all be liberated. Does the Pure Land method bring such benefits?”

You should know that while reciting mantras brings limitless blessings and virtue, reciting the Buddha’s name also has unimaginable power! Do you not recall this passage from the Meditation Sutra:

Even those who have committed the Five Grave Offenses or the Ten Evil Acts, may, on the verge of death, when the marks of the hells appear, recite the Buddha’s name a few times, and be reborn immediately in the Pure Land.

Do you not also realize that in the Avatamsaka Assembly, even those Bodhisattvas who have attained the Equal Enlightenment stage (i.e., virtual equality with the Buddhas) must still make the Ten Great Vows, dedicating the merits to rebirth in the Pure Land, so as to perfect the fruit of Enlightenment? Moreover, if the Pure Land were not a lofty, transcendental method, why would the Buddhas and Patriarchs, in countless sutras and commentaries, have all carefully and earnestly recommended its cultivation.

In truth, Mahayana methods are all complete, perfect and sublime; it is only because sentient beings differ in conditions and capacities, some high level and mature, others low level and wanting, that the benefits derived from those methods are different. When the Patriarch Shan Tao—believed to be a incarnation of Amitabha Buddha—was teaching “uninterrupted practice,” he was concerned that cultivators were unsettled in mind and will. He therefore wrote:

Even if the sages of the Four Fruits, the Bodhisattvas at the stages of the Ten Abodes, Ten Practices, Ten Dedications and Ten Grounds, as well as the Buddhas of the ten directions who fill the empty space of the Dharma Realm, should all appear—their bodies emitting rays of light—and request you to abandon the Pure land method, offering to transmit a loftier method to you, do not dare to follow their words. This is because, having previously resolved with utmost determination to follow the Pure Land method, you cannot go back on your Vows.

The Patriarch Shan Tao uttered these words because he anticipated that those of future generations would “stand on one mountain while dreaming of the other,” having no true position. However, these golden words were not followed even by those who venerated him as their direct teacher—much less by those who have not heard or understood them! To be exposed to a method so well adapted to the conditions and capacities of sentient beings and yet to abandon it for the murky path of karmic consciousness—practicing neither Zen nor Pure Land—is this not incitement by evil karma accumulated from time immemorial? What a pity indeed!

The Non-Dual Truth represents No-Self and No-Dharma.

No-Self (emptiness of self) means true understanding that the five skandas [form, feeling, conception, impulse and consciousness], which together represent body and mind, are all born of causes and conditions. When these com apart, body and mind immediately disappear. There is no real “self” as master.

No-Dharma (emptiness of all phenomena) means true understanding that the five skandas are empty [not only because they are aggregates] but by their very nature. Thus, the Heart Sutra states:

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara illumined the five skandas and saw that they were empty.

The truth of Emptiness of all Dharmas is precisely the True Mark, attained through eradication of delusion. Therefore, the Heart Sutra continues:

Thus, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara overcame all ills and suffering.

Furthermore, the principle that the Dharma-body—while being the basis of all marks—is completely apart from such marks as birth, extinction, impermanence, permanence, existence and emptiness, conforms very much to the Truth. Hence the name “True Mark.”

This True Mark is common to sentient beings and Buddhas, but ordinary humans, as well as followers of the Two Vehicles, deludingly reject it and therefore cannot take advantage of it. It is a though you had a diamond sewn into the hem of your shirt but, unaware of it, must endure poverty and deprivation.

To awaken to the Way (experience a Great Awakening) is to be in a state of thorough understanding, like the clouds dissipating to expose the moon, the shutters thrown open to reveal the mountain range; it is like someone with clear vision recognizing the way home, or a tramp unexpectedly discovering a treasure trove.

To achieve Enlightenment is like following a well-trodden path home, dusting off your feet and sitting down to rest; it is like taking treasures from the trove to spend as ypu wish.

Once truly awakened to the Way, an ordinary being endowed with the Bodhi Mind achieves a level of insight and understanding equal to that of the Buddhas. As far as attaining Enlightenment is concerned, the Bodhisattvas of the first “ground” do not know the comings and goings of those of the next “ground.” Understanding the meaning of awakening to the Way and attainment of Enlightenment, you naturally do not become arrogant toward those at a higher level, nor do you develop a mind of retrogression. Rather, your determination to achieve rebirth in the Pure land cannot be restrained, not even by ten thousand buffaloes!

Look at the times we are in. The flames of war are now raging. There is fighting between north and south, insurrection and strife are spreading within China and abroad, the number of dead over the last three or four years can be counted in the millions—we have not heard of such tragedies throughout history. Moreover, disasters such as typhoons, floods, earthquakes and epidemics occur with alarming frequency. Sometimes drought and flooding both create havoc several times within a single year. Because of these events, prices have more than doubled.

At times like these, it is a feat just to remain alive; how dare you fail to redouble your efforts at uninterrupted Buddha Recitation, seeking rebirth in the Pure Land? How can you waste this human body, so difficult to obtain, dreaming of methods which are not suitable for the times? If you do not strive to concentrate on this one method now, I fear that in the future, you will no longer have the opportunity to encounter such a straightforward, sublime shortcut!

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